Political science: Poll reveals Americans’ views of scientists

human embryonic stem cells
Stanford University School of Medicine/California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
A fluorescent microscope image shows human embryonic stem cells in this photo taken at Stanford University and released earlier this year by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

This is shaping up to be a great PR year for scientists.

First, President Obama has repeatedly given science a starring role in his vision for America’s future. (See video here of his recent speech to the National Academy of Sciences.)

Now it turns out that the American people — the crusty, irascible crowd that so deeply mistrusts Congress, journalists and almost everyone else who could be associated with elite or intellectual status — are uncharacteristically soft on scientists.

In a new poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, scientists won approval ratings no realistic politician could even dream of. Eighty-four percent said that science’s effect on society has been mostly positive. Compared with other professions, only members of the military and teachers ranked higher than scientists in terms of contributions to our overall well being.

A large majority of those polled also supported government funding for scientific research. Pew conducted the poll in April and May in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

People took more skeptical views, though, when it came to America’s scientific achievements. Clearly they worry that the nation is slipping behind the rest of the developed world. Just 17 percent thought that U.S. scientific achievements were the best in the world. Scientists, themselves, were more positive on that point. Forty-nine percent of those questioned in a parallel poll said U.S. achievements were the best in the world.

Dim views
Never mind that American scientists sequenced the human genome, isolated embryonic stem cells and probed distant planets. Only 27 percent of those who make their livings outside laboratories told the pollsters that science and medical technology rank among the United States’ greatest achievements of the past 50 years. Pride in the nation’s scientific achievements apparently fell over a cliff during the past decade: in a similar poll conducted in May 1999, 47 percent ranked scientific and medical advances among America’s greatest achievements.

The scientists suggest an explanation for the dim views of the nation’s scientific prowess. Of those polled, 85 percent said the public knows far too little about science.

The scientists also faulted the news media. Seventy-six percent said news reports do not distinguish between well-founded findings and the insignificant stuff. TV coverage got the worst marks; just 15 percent of the scientists rated it as excellent or good.

Further, half of the scientists blamed the public too, saying that people look for unrealistically quick solutions to problems.

A microbiologist who participated in the survey summed the situation this way: “I feel that science education in this country is in a terrible state, particularly post-elementary education. Something is happening between grade school and junior high school where our kids are losing interest in science or their teachers are not inspiring them. We also need some kind of continuing education, or outreach program, to adults who are out of school. The pace of our scientific advances has become quite swift the last 50 years, but most U.S. adults have been left behind.”

Test your own knowledge here with Pew’s online quiz.

Sharp differences
Knowledge aside, the poll revealed sharp differences between the scientists and everyone else on some key issues.

Not surprisingly evolution was one. Eighty-seven of the scientists said that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes. Just 32 percent of the public accepted this as true.

On another hot button contemporary issue, 84 percent of the scientists said the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity. Forty-nine percent of the non-scientists agreed.

Favor the use of animals in scientific research? Yes, said 93 percent of the scientists; just 52 percent of the others agreed.

Favor federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells? Yes, said 93 percent of scientists; 58 percent of the others agreed.

Favor building more nuclear power plants? Yes, said 70 percent of the scientists; 51 percent of the others agreed.

Vaccinate all children? Yes, said 82 percent of scientists; 69 percent of others agreed.

One surprising finding is that scientists lean further to the political left than the nation as a whole. In the survey, 55 percent identified themselves as Democrats compared with 35 percent of the public. And fully 52 percent of the scientists called themselves liberals, something only 20 percent of the others would admit to.

Just 20 percent of the others in the survey thought of scientists as politically liberal.

So will that finding sway the public’s view of scientists? Stay tuned for the next survey.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by John Windhorst on 07/13/2009 - 05:22 am.

    Ah, but this journalist missed the point, it is the media that does not believe scientists.


  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 07/13/2009 - 08:50 am.

    The problem with the interaction of the media and scientists is that journalists are inexplicably trained to look for two sides of a story, even when there’s only one. The general public is not part of any scientific “debate”, because by the time something filters down that far it’s been long since understood by those whose business it is to understand it. The public needs to understand, more than any specific bit of science, the general process. Then they can learn to trust it as source of knowledge that while imperfect, is far and away the best people can do.

    Scientists, of course, are not above thinking themselves as experts in fields that are not their own. I suspect if the evolution question and global warming question were asked of biologists and climatoligists only, their answers would be above 99% with the consensus. The only “scientists” saying “no” to evolution are high school general science teachers in Alabama.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/13/2009 - 11:01 am.

    My two years of internship at the Stanford Linear Accelerator was remarkable in several ways. While the experience was exhilarating professionally, I do recall being uncomfortable with some of the viewpoints expressed from time to time regarding the current politics (Ronald Reagan was at the height of his tenure).

    While I learned many valuable lessons from the scientists, doctoral candidates and grad students I worked with, the personal interaction couldn’t have been more misleading, since in the intervening 25 years of working as an Electrical Engineer in private industry, I can honestly state that I could count the number of genuine “liberals” I’ve encountered among my colleagues on one hand.

    I wonder if the fact that pure research largely relies on government funding and takes place (at least in part) on college and university campuses, while the R&D necessary to render pure science to the yoke of practical application is almost always solely supported by private investment accounts in any way for the political disparity between scientists and engineers?

    Certainly the fact that funding for “Climate change” research is 99.99% government supplied has nothing to do with the “consensus” among recipients……

  4. Submitted by Paul Bramscher on 07/13/2009 - 12:46 pm.

    In high school I learned of the scientific method, but later in life, having earned a triple-major and done some graduate work (I now work at the U of MN), I’ve seen the less savory socio-economics and politics of science. All scholars need to go through various hoops in order to get a doctorate, a good position or tenure, and everyone needs to earn a paycheck — scientists shouldn’t be seen purely as altruistic arbiters of ultimate truth, since they work for many of the industries that public vilifies. Some of the dynamics are covered in Jennifer Washburn’s (2005) “University, Inc.”

    So while public opinion polls like this are interesting insofar as they go (to suggest something about public perceptions, feelings, sentiment, etc.) they don’t yield any information on whether science is becoming increasingly politicized and manipulated by economics. In the past quarter century we’ve seen anecdotal evidence of public opinion eroding around the medical professions. Insurance began to dominate, tests/procedures may sometimes be over-prescribed to boost insurance billing, while coverage may be declining to boost profits, doctors are continually influence-peddled by Big Pharm, etc. The public smells something is up, and it erodes (perhaps justifiably?) confidence. Hopefully we can still preserve some economic/political neutral ground in which generally unbiased science (one of the bedrocks of our civilization) can survive. I believe we’re coming close to losing it. Many of the pure science at the U are dying or gone — many of the “-ologies” have been replaced with their economically-driven trades — the “-eerings”.

  5. Submitted by jim hughes on 07/13/2009 - 12:48 pm.

    Jeff Klein’s comment is spot on. The media’s obsession with controversy leads to an immediate assumption that every question, even a clear-cut scientific one, has 2 equally valid sides. It’s becoming impossible to get consensus on important decisions because the public receives the impression that the sciencific issues are never really settled – that the jury is perpetually “out”.

    Today, in the 21st century, it is not helpful – in fact it is ridiculous – to refer to “the controversial theory of evolution”.

  6. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 07/13/2009 - 01:08 pm.

    The comments here about phony media balance and invented (or at least embellished) controversy are valid. But I think a greater problem with science reporting in the general media is the one David Galitz raises. We see too many headlines touting research findings that may be valid as single studies but do not in and of themselves get us very far in terms of understanding a diet, a cure or an interesting new theory. Pity the poor confused readers.

  7. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 07/13/2009 - 03:42 pm.

    David has a point in those fields. I’m in a natural science field, physics, so I can say with regard to the natural sciences that an given individual member of the public would have to spend a couple of years of study to really partake in any serious “debate”. Something like nutrition barely qualifies as science, or at least the studies rarely support the headlined conclusion. There are so many variables that you have to look for consistent patterns over many studies. Otherwise it’s just, “oh look, chocolate’s good for you this week, but wine is out.”

  8. Submitted by Paul Bramscher on 07/14/2009 - 10:41 am.

    Looking more carefully at this article, it’s worthwhile to note that so many scientists are apparently in favor of building more nuclear plants, as opposed to more research in solar/wind/geothermal/hydrogen. The TCO of nuclear must include storage/monitoring/security/real estate emcumbrances on the waste for thousands of years, uranium cartels (as with oil) already exist, it is extraordinarily subsidized and top-down in nature, etc. This would render it a dubious choice today from either a TCO or economic perspective — whereas it may have been a better choice 50-75 years ago when there existed fewer alternative/renewable energy options, before the era of computers, nanotechnology, and many associated advances in materials sciences, etc.

    I carefully read the sampling methodology, and the Pew study drew from membership of the AAAS, which — presumably — includes greater representation among the hard sciences, physics, engineering, etc. It would be interesting to see the break-downs by the sort of scientist. I’d suspect much greater support for nuclear/oil among those scientists working for GE/Westinghouse/Exxon, etc.

    It would be interesting if the sampling strategy could somehow account for the employer/industry (big energy, defense, etc.) of the scientist in question, and adjust for possible biases for the political/policy (not science) related questions.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/15/2009 - 07:04 am.

    Paul, your comments regarding the relationship of the “employer/industry” and how it relates to the survey would probably not be too surprising. I would suspect that some turf protection might be involved there.

    You also say that:

    “Many of the pure science at the U are dying or gone — many of the “-ologies” have been replaced with their economically-driven trades — the “-eerings”.

    Our team of engineers has a poster in their work space that I find relevant to your above comment. It follows:

    //The “either/or” thinking that worked in the past is no longer effective. The ability to think in terms of “both/and” will be valuable to discerning in the future what is occurring around us.//

    The other one that I like is when it comes to some of the more narrow and less open minded engineers:

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in words that could not ring truer today “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

    Many of us fail the first part. We cannot hold two opposing ideas. This is an ability we will have to quickly acquire if we are to make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

  10. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 07/17/2009 - 05:28 pm.

    I’m curious about something: per the article, scientists tend to be more politically liberal than the general populace. I’m fairly certain that more scientists have degrees, particularly advanced degrees, than the general populace as well. I’ve seen various demographic polls indicating that the rate of liberalism increases with the level of education. Are scientists with advanced degrees markedly more liberal than other people with advanced degrees?

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